"I wanted to collect some kind of data, there was so much around"
– Harry Smith1
Harry Everett Smith (1923–1991) and Alan Lomax (1915–2002)
are two of the twentieth century’s foremost folk musicologists,
and their life’s work is a testament to the things a collection
can achieve. More so than most of his contemporaries in the art world,
their work provides a fitting lens through which to view the career
of British artist Jeremy Deller. His interest in personal, event-specific
and localized histories is comparable in spirit to those of Smith
and Lomax, coupled with their shared approach to archivism.
Harry Smith, an eccentric shaggy bohemian, is best known for compiling
the enormously influential Anthology of American Folk Music, a collection
of recordings of American folk and country music from the late 1920s
to the early thirties2. Released in 1952 on
Folkways Records, the collection, featuring such legendary acts as
The Carter Family, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Clarence Ashley, is generally
considered to be the bible of folk music. It is impossible to overstate
its impact on the American folk-music community.
Smith’s collections were not limited to the scratchy 78’s
that made up the bulk of the Anthology, he also collected books, Native
American artifacts, Seminole textiles, Ukrainian Easter eggs and spoons
shaped like ducks. Biographies delight in listing that his notorious
paper airplane collection, reportedly the largest in the world, is
now housed at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space
Museum. Strangely, there is no mention of it on their fairly comprehensive
website and no one I could reach there knew anything about it. It
is likely that Smith donated the collection; they accepted it and
then discreetly discarded it.
Alan Lomax was born in Austin, Texas to noted folklorist John A. Lomax
(the nation's preeminent collector of cowboy songs) and began his
career assisting his father recording songs sung by prisoners. In
the forties the pair criss-crossed the nation in a beat-up pick-up
truck collecting songs that they would later develop into the Library
of Congress’ Archive of American Folk Song as a major national
resource. The pair recorded thousands of songs, stories and oral histories
in their original domestic settings. These field recordings are held
in equal regard to Smith’s Anthology, a treasure trove of American
and international culture.
Lomax was instrumental to the careers of Woody Guthrie, Muddy Waters,
Lead Belly (who he helped obtain release from prison), Josh White,
Burl Ives and Pete Seeger, among others. He was among the first to
recognize the vital factor of social protest in folk songs, and brought
this into the arena of contemporary politics, including many civil
rights campaigns. Lomax was guided by a principle he called “cultural
equity,” the need for equal representation of all cultures in
the nation’s media and classrooms, and in the importance of
returning traditions to their home sources and artists, a strategy
he called “cultural feedback.” He worked tirelessly to
illustrate that the fibers of American art and culture wove the far-flung
arms of society into some sort of unified pattern.
Deller shares many traits and tendencies with these legendary figures
as celebrated instigators, impresarios, anthropologists, folk art
collector/curators, educators, nomads, filmmakers*, producers, etc.
He shares with them a concern for recording the intangible cultural
heritage that exists in the smallest cracks of society. He shares
their love of music and belief that it both reflects its surroundings
and can alter them.
When accepting an award towards the end of his life Harry Smith said
"I'm glad to say my dreams came true. I saw America changed by
music." Deller, too draws parallels between social issues and
music, most overtly in History of the World and Acid Brass (both on
currently on display at the Art Gallery of York University), but the
idea that music and culture are inseparable can be traced back to
his earliest works and continues throughout his practice.
When invited in 2003 to take up residency at Bard College and the
Centre for Curatorial Studies Deller proposed a collection of Lomax-like
field recordings of music indigenous to Red Hook, New York –
church choirs, cheerleaders, a garage rock band, a family Celtic pipe
band, church bells, birds of prey and a bluegrass group. Unlike a
studio recording, which is designed to harness and polish a song,
field recordings allow the performer to feel at home and relaxed,
unthreatened. The approach often coaxes a more natural or honest performance
from the players. Tom Waits has remarked that songs don’t want
to be recorded, and attempting to do so is like “trying to trap
birds.”2 To do it correctly one must take the utmost of care.
He notes that studios are frequently cold, sterile places where he
wouldn’t want to take his friends, so why his songs?3
A field recording removes the problematic foreign environment, but
also requires an inherent mutual trust and respect between the recorded
and the recorder.
Deller’s upstate New York field recordings took place in basements
and basketball courts, churches and nursing homes. The resulting compilation
CD, This is Us, is an audio portrait of the town, containing compositions
that might have otherwise died with their authors. The liner notes
give voice to the participants…The disk was made available in
local convenience stores, gas stations, restaurants and churches.
A fully catered CD launch party was held at a local pub and made open
to the public, providing an opportunity for some of the contributors
to collaborate on a new performance.
A field recording is also at the centre of Deller’s first work
created in the United States. After the Goldrush, its title taken
from the classic 1970 Neil Young album, began as a comparison between
the then-recent dot-com-bust and the 1849 Gold Rush, but quickly evolved
into a larger portrait of an area, made in collaboration with local
Upon accepting a residency at CCAC Wattis Institute in San Francisco
Deller promptly spent his honorarium on a vehicle – a twenty-year-old
jeep with a bullet hole on the driver’s side – to travel
the Golden State. He then bought five acres of desert property near
Death Valley where he made a live recording of William Elliot Whitmore
in the 95° Fahrenheit heat. The $2000 land purchase opens the
CD that accompanies the book; the auctioneers yodel effortlessly segueing
into Whitmore’s banjo compositions.
The book itself is a 96-page collection of photographs, maps, drawings,
interviews and history. It is part travel guide, part treasure-hunt,
delving into more than a hundred years of Californian history. It
is a guidebook that emphasizes people over places in the most populated
state of the USA. It is a record of the American dream and the people
who wake from it.
It also contains documentation of a quintessential Deller intervention,
perhaps my favorite. It is a small public plaque commemorating a neighbourhood
stop sign that owes its existence to lobbying on the part of the Black
Panther Party. These types of simple community services get lost in
the larger history of the movement; especially the mainstream view
of the Panthers as simply armed radicals, or in J. Edgar Hoover words
"the greatest threat to the internal security of the country".
The group was responsible for operating medical clinics, providing
meals for school children and offering assistance to the homeless.
In addition to being pointed political gesture, Deller’s intervention
reminds us that every corner has some story to tell. 5
Memory Bucket was produced during a two-month long residency at ArtPace
in San Antonio, and focuses on two nearby politically loaded locations
- Waco and Crawford, Texas. Prior to the nineties the city of Waco
was best known as the birthplace of Big Red cream soda and as home
to one of the deadliest tornados in US history. In April of 1993,
responding to allegations of child abuse, polygamy and the stockpiling
of weapons, the FBI forced a standoff at the Branch Davidians compound
that would last almost two months and kill 76 people, including 4
agents, 21 children and religious leader David Koresh. The Clinton
administration has been criticized for the excessive and reckless
use of force, procedural irregularities and the unsubstantiated information
that led to the charges, but no one responsible has ever been held
accountable. Twenty-five miles west of Waco is Crawford, a fiercely
patriotic town with less than a thousand residents, one of them being
the President of the United States.6
The film includes testimonies from survivors of the siege, an interview
with the manager of the President’s local coffee shop, scenes
from anti-war demonstrations, Willie Nelson, archival footage and
concludes with a lingering shot of three million bats emerging from
a cave and flying off into the sunset.
Since Memory Bucket, Deller has focused on an ongoing collaborative
project with Alan Kane - the Folk-Art Archive. The result of nearly
ten years of collecting, the work is the most forthright example of
his approach but his entire practice could be considered a collection
of folk art: the artworks and poetry of the Manic Street Preachers
fans in The Uses of Literacy; Acid Brass as the conflation of two
forms of instrumental protest song, the music of the retired locals
in We Are The Mods, and the list goes on. Even the early poster projects
(announcing non-existent exhibitions by musicians at prestigious galleries:
Keith Moon: A Retrospective or Stephen Patrick Morrissey, A Life in
Words) can be viewed in this context as the works challenge accepted
notions of a compartmentalized culture.
Like that of Lomax and Smith, Deller’s work presents us with
the overlooked and the undervalued activities that lay outside of
recognized culture and politics. His emphasis on the small helps paint
a more detailed larger, broader picture of the culture and history
of a place, the living traditions told by those who are living them.
While far from humourless, these actions are not ironic and he collects
as a curator, not plunderer. He also offers a public platform to those
who might otherwise not have one. Not as social service, but because,
as Lomax noted in the introduction to the 1941 book Our Singing Country,
“…these people have a lot to say and remember.”
Dave Dyment, 2006
1. Sing Out!, Volume 19, Number 1, 1969.
2. Harry Smith is now revered as an pioneering experimental filmmaker.
He produced extravagant abstract animations, often painting directly
onto the celluloid. IA comprehensive understanding his output as a
filmmaker is difficult, as he would often re-cut his films and add
different soundtracks (once the entire Meet The Beatles LP). Recently
his films have been screened to live musical accompaniment by musicians
and artists as varied as Philip Glass, Christian Marclay, DJ Spooky,
and Calfione .
3. GQ Magazine, June 2002.
4. For this reason, many of his more recent releases have been recorded
4. Deller has installed several other commemorative plaques for dead
miners, Beatle manager Brian Epstein, a tribute to a cyclist knocked
down near his home on Holloway Road, etc.
5. Critics note that Bush moved in just prior to his 2000 campaign
and that the “ranch” is mostly a campaign tool that provides
the President with some much-needed down-home appeal and the media
with scenes of Bush riding his bicycle, playing with his dog and clearing
Outlasting the World:
Rodney Graham’s Parsifal and other Endurance Music
I have a mere three days to write about an artwork that is thirty-nine
billion years long. I was asked to interview Rodney Graham about his
band and their new recording Rock is Hard, but my own bad time-management
skills and inability to look beyond the next deadline (which preceded
this one by a weekend), coupled with Graham’s own hectic schedule,
has left me to instead contemplate music measured in decades, millennia
Parsifal (1982 – 39,969,364,735 AD) or Verwandlungsmusik (Transformation
Music) is one of the first Graham pieces I encountered, and remains
a strong favorite. The work originates from a story Graham had read
about Richard Wagner and the 1882 rehearsals of Parsifal in Bayreuth.
When the curtains closed too slowly Wagner was asked to compose some
additional music to smooth over the transition. He refused, declaring
“I do not write music by the meter” 1
Fortunately for the producers, Wagner’s assistant Engelbert
Humperdinck (not the 60’s crooner) was willing to oblige. His
additions to the score were accepted by Wagner and used for the first
few performances but eventually dropped after the curtains were altered
and the stage machinery overhauled.
Graham hunted down these obscure excised bars and upon further investigation
determined that Humperdinck had actually composed no new music, but
rather manipulated the existing score so that the piece could loop
back on itself. Graham recognized the similarity to his own 1983 work
Lenz, in which he takes the reoccurrence of a phrase within the first
five pages of the novel, and re-typesets it to facilitate a narrative
that could loop back upon itself and mirror the story of the protagonist
who is continuously retracing his own steps.2
By returning the extra bars of music to the score of Parsifal as a
progression of repetitions, their durations determined by the prime
numbers between 3 and 47, Graham was able to create a series of asynchronous
loops that would not resynchronize for 39 billion years. He tried
to pinpoint the exact time that the work would conclude (7:30 pm on
June 18th) but a letter from Alan H Batten from the Herzberg Institute
of Astrophysics suggests that an accurate date would be impossible.
He goes on to list the problems with the speculation, not least of
which are the likelihood that long before that time the Sun will cease
The CD recording of Parsifal3 contains “Orchestral Highlights”
and whenever Graham has the work performed a software program determines
where the composition, which begun (hypothetically) in 1882, would
currently be in the continuum, and starts there.
Unlike Wagner, Jem
Finer is quite content to compose music by the meter. His Longplayer
project for Artangel is a composition in which length is the primary
component - it is exactly one thousand years long. It debuted on December
31st, 1999, international time and will continue to play – without
repetition – until the end of the year 2999. Pages from Finer’s notebooks reveal that the source material
was secondary to the duration of the work. He began intending to use
the Judy Garland version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, which worked
out fine for the first 70 years, but once the singing started in it
became problematic. A thousand years of royalties to EMI, the copyright
holder, nailed the coffin closed. Excerpts from various classic avant-garde
works4 were then considered before Finer settled on using Tibetan
bowls and gongs. The resulting sonic tapestry consists of a 20 minute
and 20 second recording of the Tibetan composition from which six
overlapping loops are created, each at a different pitch and advancing
at a different speed. The constant shifting of these layers creates
ever-changing textures and harmonies. The loops are mathematically
determined to complete the cycle at the end of the thousand years.
The project demands serious long-term planning, as future generations
will have to inherit the responsibility for its upkeep. To ensure
its viability, a trust fund was set up with a think-tank that includes
individuals and corporations such as Apple Mac Computers, composer
and theorist David Toop, and Brian Eno.
Eno’s own musical explorations can provide a precedent to both
Longplayer and Parsifal. Little known as a visual artist and less
known in music circles than his influence would suggest, there are
few people familiar with western culture who have never heard a Brian
Eno recording. His output includes solo recordings, film scores, production
work for U2, James, David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, Laurie Anderson, Roxy
Music, Elvis Costello, Sinead O’Connor, the Talking Heads and
countless others, and even the start-up music for Windows95 –
to many a sound now as common as the morning alarm clock or telephone
ring. Of his solo records, the 1978 instrumental release Music For
Airports is considered the most groundbreaking and important. Subtitled
“Ambient 1”, the record was accompanied by an essay in
which Eno coins the term to describe a new type of non-rhythmic, unclocked
music5 - sounds which would play simultaneously to one another, rather
than as synchronicities. A music that rewarded close attention, but
did not demand it. Aural wallpaper.
Three years prior Eno had released Discreet Music to little fanfare.
The recording lasted thirty minutes and thirty-five seconds6 –
pretty much the full capacity of one side of a vinyl record. But the
composition itself was of no fixed length - the recording (like Graham’s)
was an excerpt from an indefinite system created by Eno using two
compatible melodic lines of different durations. The score is an operational
diagram of a studio apparatus that included an echo unit and delay
The flipside to Discreet Music is Eno’s Three Variations on
the Canon in D Major by Johann Pachelbel. Each performer was given
a two to four-bar fragment of the Pachelbel score and a series of
instructions that ensure that the bars overlapped in ways not dictated
by the original. For the first movement, the pitch of the instrument
dictates the degree to which the player’s tempo is decreased.
Like Parsifal, the resultant audiowork is pandiatonic7 and deceptively
beautiful - a “conceptual neoclassicism”8Brian Eno is
also a member of the Long Now Foundation, an institute that promotes
“slower/better” thinking. Computer scientist Daniel Hillis
founded the LNF9 in 1996 when he recognized that the future was shrinking.
Measured almost entirely by its proximity to the year 2000, the ‘future’
was dwindling yearly, and now that the benchmark has passed it seems
less and less a concern.
Conversely, the ‘short now’ is a cultural constant encompassing
everything from the fast rise and fall of celebrity, our endless quest
for the new & improved, the politics of the next opinion poll
and the bottom line of industry to the fickle trends of fashion. Now
Magazine10 reported last week that sweatshop laborers in Thailand
are being fed amphetamines to keep up with the rising demand for new
stock in department stores. Clothing lines were once introduced four
times a year – to coincide with the change of season –
but consumers are now accustomed to new merchandize on a weekly basis.
With the acceleration of technology comes the pathology of the short
attention span and a foresight so limited it results in a blatant
disregard for own our descendants. Bob Dole’s ill-fated 1996
campaign slogan “jobs first” – a reaction to the
name of the activist agency Earth First – illustrates the problem.
The idea that one could prioritize jobs over the planet itself is
currently reflected in North America’s reluctance to sign the
Kyoto accord thus mortgaging the environment to our great-grandchildren.
In fact, one of the stated goals of the Foundation is to “do
for thinking about time what photographs of the earth from space did
for thinking about the environment.” To facilitate this, the
Long Now Foundation is planning the creation of a clock that will
tick once a year, bong once a century and produce a cuckoo once every
millennium. It is intended to keep time for the next 10,000 years
based on the reasoning that we should be able to think ahead at least
as far as we are able to look behind (ten thousand years ago the Ice
Age ended and the roots of agriculture and civilization began). Complicated
and impractical, the clock’s main function would be to act as
an icon, to encourage a shift in perspective. The problem it suggests
of sustainability (both physical and financial) is central to the
In the mid-nineties I made a pilgrimage to New York City to meet some
Fluxus artists with whom I had been corresponding. One of my destinations
was the home of La Monte Young, a composer who played a key figure
in movements as varied as Fluxus, minimalism (think Philip Glass,
but good) and even rock music (Angus Maclise and John Cale performed
with him before forming the Velvet Underground with Lou Reed). Young
and his partner light-artist Marian Zazeela were presenting, in their
home, the ten year long composition (with a name to match) The Base
9:7:4 Symmetry in Prime Time When Centered above and below The Lowest
Term Primes in The Range 288 to 224 with The Addition of 279 and 261
in Which The Half of The Symmetric Division Mapped above and Including
288 Consists of The Powers of 2 Multiplied by The Primes within The
Ranges of 144 to 128, 72 to 64 and 36 to 32 Which Are Symmetrical
to Those Primes in Lowest Terms in The Half of The Symmetric Division
Mapped below and Including 224 within The Ranges 126 to 112, 63 to
56 and 31.5 to 28 with The Addition of 119.
Generated digitally in real time on a custom-designed Rayna interval
synthesizer, the work contained waveforms with intervals so complex
it is unlikely they have ever been heard before. Enormous speakers
fill the top floor of their home and the work is continuous, playing
during the day and throughout the night, for the full ten years.
When I arrived (sometime during the third year, I recall) the place
was completely silent - the computer had crashed.
Parsifal and Longplayer will never be heard. Even if La Monte Young’s
10-year Dream House composition was electronically sustainable it
could only possibly ever be heard in its entirety by himself or his
partner, and that’s assuming that they are never required to
leave their home, however momentarily.
This in no way detracts from their success - many of my favorite records
remain un-played. This may align me with the obsessive comic book
collector and his mylar protected treasures, forever unread lest their
value wane. It is true that I am acutely aware of the current market
value of much of my collection, and I take careful measures to ensure
its longevity, but my records are latent with sound because they can
be. Christian Marclay’s Record Without a Cover or Footsteps
are record objects. As are Boyd Rice’s 7” 45s with two
spindle holes and locked grooves. Or the collaged vinyl of Milan Knizak
or Ian Murray. Conceptual music, or “music for the mind”
figures greatly in the work of Yoko Ono, Fluxus, Gavin Bryars and
one of the 20th century’s leading thinkers/composers, John Cage.
The French artist Ben Vautier once told me that listening to Cage
was very boring, reading about John Cage was very boring, but thinking
about John Cage was hilarious. Rodney Graham has confessed in interviews
that he doesn’t consider Parsifal to be a successful piece of
music12 but rather a bit of a musical joke. A joke that redeems itself
"…because it is a joke of cosmic proportions”. 13
Dave Dyment, 2004
1. Woody Allen echoes the sentiment thru his character Frederic in
Hannah and Her Sisters. The brooding artist played by Max Von Sydow
pretentiously proclaims “I do not sell my work by the yard”.
2. Graham also produced a number of works in which he inserts short
texts into the works of Sigmund Freud (Freud Citation, 1983, Freud
Supplement) and Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels (Dr. No, 1991
and Casino Royale, 1993). These text works suggest when reading Graham
is simultaneously contemplating both content and format. Most of his
later film-works also referenced the idea of the ‘loop.’
3. The piece also exists as a score transcribed onto a paper signature
that allows for a perfect looped reading.
4. Including Brian Eno’s “Music for Airports” and
John Cage’s “Prepared Piano.”
5. The term has subsequently been used to describe anything from the
innocuous New Age music played in nature stores to variations of techno
– throbbing dance grooves coupled with atmospherics such as
“Ambient House”, “Ambient Drum ‘n’ Bass”,
“Ambient Trance”, etc.
6. Any additional time would force the record grooves to be cut closer
to one another and sound loss would occur. When CDs hit the market,
Eno was one of the first to compose a work specifically for the new,
7. A harmonic structure that is neither purely functional, nor atonal.
8. “Brian Eno; His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound”
by Eric Tamm
9. The irony of an acronym for the Long Now Foundation is not lost
10. “Fashion crimes” by Adria Vasil. Now Magazine March
11. A posthumous performance of a John Cage piece that came with the
instructions “play as slow as possible” is currently underway
in Halberstadt, Germany. A work which once lasted 29 minutes is being
reinterpreted by the current musicians to last 639 years. It debuted
on September 5th, 2001 but because the first note in the score was
a rest, a sound was not played until 17 months later. The work will
end in 2640, with an intermission in the year 2319.
12. It is.
13. “A Little Thought: Rodney Graham and Matthew Higgs in Conversation”
THIS IS NOT A STORY MY PEOPLE TELL
“How many people were at the last supper?” asks music
impresario Tony Wilson, rhetorically, in the film 24 Hour Party People.2
He is arguing that despite the small audience turnout to a Sex Pistols
gig in Manchester, the show was nevertheless revolutionary, its impact
enormous. Forty-two people is thirty more than the Last Supper (twenty-nine
if you count Jesus) and thirty-seven more than at the murder of Julius
Caesar. Wilson then goes on to note (his character bestowed with the
benefit of 25 years of hindsight) that an amazing percentage of those
42 attendees go on to considerable fame as record producers, record
company executives and musicians (The Buzzcocks, Simply Red, Joy Division/New
Order). It’s like the famous Brian Eno quote about the Velvet
Underground only selling a thousand copies of their debut record,
but “everyone who bought one formed a band.”
The same argument appears later in the film (perhaps more spuriously,
at a failed concert for the band A Certain Ratio) and the ante is
upped. “There were only half a dozen at Kittyhawk, and Archimedes
was on his own, in the bath” Wilson exclaims, the implication
being that the smaller the audience the more important the event.
If this is true anywhere, it is true with the legacy of Performance
Art. The themes, ideas and approaches of the Performance Art movement
have affected and influenced most aspects of contemporary art practice,
despite being witnessed by only a handful of people.
It does not seem controversial to suggest that essays about Allan
Kaprow’s early Happenings now outnumber the actual people who
saw them. Even the best attended Performance Art presentation would
cause theatre owners to worry, cinema owners to close down and sports
teams owners (even during a warm up game) to leave town.
Contemporary Art suffers a similar dilemma; its influence is pervasive
(websites, cinema, television, graphic design, even the world of business)
but its audience miniscule. However, through the very nature of being
open for longer than a single evening, exhibitions tend to see audiences
several times larger than even the most densely populated performance
work. Other once marginalized art forms such as the artists’
book, artists’ audio, and video works have subsequently gained
various levels of acceptance – artists’ books have infiltrated
libraries and bookstores, artists’ audio works periodically
make their way into record stores and have found a life online, and
artists’ video works are now so ubiquitous as to have become
almost unwelcome. But the transitory nature of Performance keeps it
at the margins of the margins. If you missed it, you missed it - it’s
gone. The performance is finite. This wasn’t only an inherent
necessity for the movement; it was a core principle.
"I myself was very proud that I didn’t document my work.
I felt that, since much of what of it was about time and memory, that
was the way it should be recorded – in the memories of the viewers
– with all the inevitable distortions, associations and elaborations…when
live art is documented through film or audio recordings it immediately
becomes another art form…but live art is continually elusive…ever
evolving and reinventing". – Laurie Anderson3
Anderson’s views have undoubtedly changed on the subject and
in fact she is one of the most documented of all Performance Artists,
her shows being recorded and issued as CDs, box sets, books, even
a feature-length, wide-release film – Home of the Brave.
Performance Art, Happenings and Events began alongside other movements
in contemporary art that opposed the co modification of art and aimed
towards its dematerialization. Of them all – Land and Earth
Art, Conceptual Art, Minimalism, Correspondence Art – the fugitive
spirit can best be embodied in Performance.
The works are intended to be experienced live, not through a detached
second hand medium. To watch a film of a performance gives the impression
that one has seen it, or at least can imagine what it might have been
like to see it. As such, Beans, Bananas and Yams eschews second hand
representations of the event and focuses, instead, on relics and residue
which do not profess to offer a false experiential substitute.
Ephemera, as defined in the essay Extra Art by Steven Leiber (the
world’s leading authority), is something that is “generally
intended to be useful for a short period of time…invitation
cards, posters, magazine and newspaper advertisements, flyers, brochures,
stickers, labels, buttons, business cards and other miscellany, all
of which are freely or inexpensively distributed”.4
In addition to these types of printed materials, the exhibition features
relics which vary from carefully cared for costumes to somehow salvaged
minor debris. If the ephemeral works have imbued value like a saved
favorite Christmas card, these props can be viewed as small souvenirs,
not unlike a hotel matchbox, a beer coaster from a favorite bar, or
ticket stubs from a concert or film. The costumes, like a preserved
wedding dress. All of them presented as evidence, though not without
the nostalgic connotations of bronzed baby boots.
So, like a souvenir on a coffee table, waiting to tell the story of
an exotic trip, these objects serve as a starting point, a conversation
A padlock tells the story of Chris Burden locked in a 2 x 2 x3 foot
storage locker for 5 days. A swatch of clothing cut from the hem of
Yoko Ono’s dress recalls Cut Piece, where the audience was invited
to cut and take away portions of her clothes, leaving her exposed
and vulnerable onstage. A blood stained Herman Nitsch fabric, a more
visceral reminder of his ritualistic and sexualized animal dismemberment
performances. Vincent Trasov’s Mr. Peanut costume and a poster
on a nearby wall tells the story of how Trasov actually ran the persona
as a mayoral candidate in Vancouver. Other costumes, Guerrilla Girl
bananas, Fluxus posters, Kaprow scores, the ambiguous protest signs
of Kelly Mark or Mathew Sawyer,5 a handwritten set list on the back
of a concert bill by Rodney Graham, and countless other items recount
or invoke moments passed.
This show does not purport to be comprehensive (an impossible goal
for even the largest of venues, with the most unlimited of resources)
but rather a highly subjective, personal sampling of the myriad of
approaches to Performance. Partly to preserve the spirit of their
moment, but mostly just to pass it on. Like telling stories around
Dave Dyment, 2004
1. “And this is not a story my people tell. It is something
I know myself. And when I do my job, I am thinking about these things.
Because when I do my job, that is what I think about.” –
Laurie Anderson, Langue D’Amour (taken out of context)
2. 2002, by director Michael Winterbottom. Wilson is portrayed by
actor/comedian Steve Coogan.
3. In an unrelated tale from her book “Stories from the Nerve
Bible”, Anderson states “the camera is a great liar.”
4. Some of the works in this show, George Brecht’s classic Water
Yam, for example, are instructional and therefore only exist as printed
cards and posters.
5. Mark stages her own mini-protests and Sawyer take his all-purpose
sign to existing demonstrations.
Shrieks, Drones and Destruction:
How Fluxus Altered the Face of Pop Music (without anyone noticing)
"A 'classic' Fluxus performance might be, for example, Robin
Page's Guitar Piece, in which he played the guitar for a while, dropped
it, kicked it off the stage, through the auditorium, down the street,
around the block, back through the auditorium and back onto the stage."-
“Pete Townshend's guitar smashing…it made this incredible
noise, like an elephant in heat. Now Pete, being the kind of showman
he is, decided after he saw the neck of the guitar break -- he just
started smashing the rest of it. Well, the crowd went bananas. "-
In 1960, a then-struggling Yoko Ono invited minimalist composer La
Monte Young to curate a series of music performances at the Chambers
Street loft she shared with her husband Toshi Ichiyanagi. Powered
by a line from next door, and warmed by a gas stove, these pre-Fluxus
events included performances by Richard Maxfield, Jackson Mac Low,
Ben Patterson, Robert Morris and Henry Flynt, many of whom would later
contribute to the seminal proto-Fluxus publication An Anthology. The
audience, which included such luminaries as John Cage, Max Ernst,
Peggy Guggenheim, Allan Kaprow, and Marcel Duchamp, sat on orange
These modest early performances, which often played to near-empty
rooms, kick-started the New York experimental music and film scenes,
laid the ground work for Fluxus, and eventually, discreetly, altered
popular music. Within a few years both Ono and La Monte Young would
wield an incredible amount of influence over the two most arguably
influential rock bands of the sixties, if not ever: The Beatles and
The Velvet Underground, respectively.
Ono’s influence on John Lennon is well documented; as Muse (is
there another songwriter who used his lover’s name as often,
in song?), as collaborator (more than half of the recordings he released
outside of the Beatles were made in partnership with Ono) and as artistic
Imagine, a song that routinely tops “greatest song of all time”
lists, should have been co-credited to Ono, Lennon noted in later
interviews. Certainly the inspiration comes from her seminal conceptual
book Grapefruit, a collection of instructional works, many of which
begin with the word ‘Imagine’ (“Imagine letting
a goldfish swim across the sky”, for example). Ono’s direct
influence can be heard on a number of post-punk, new wave records
ranging from Lydia Lunch and Diamanda Galas to The B52s.
In 1962 La Monte Young started a small ensemble called Theatre of
Eternal Music, which included his partner, light-artist Marian Zazeela,
violinist Tony Conrad, violist John Cale, drummer Angus MacLise, trumpeter
Jon Hassell, organist-vocalist Terry Riley, and others. Cale, Conrad
and MacLise would eventually leave to form The Velvet Underground
with singer-songwriter Lou Reed. The band’s aggressive sound
and focus on drone-based harmonic structures stem directly from Young’s
influence. The name The Velvet Underground itself came from an S&M
novel given to the band’s manager by Happenings pioneer and
Fluxus artist Al Hansen (the grandfather of Beck, who continues his
tradition of collage, but applies it to music, via sampling and pastiche).
La Monte Young’s influence continued after Reed disbanded the
Velvets and went solo. Metal Machine Music, from 1975, is a record
that divides fans – a select few believe it is Reed’s
most complex work, while others maintain that the four sides of white
noise are a hoax, used to sever his record contract. Reed himself
argued both positions, and the truth is probably somewhere in between.
Either way, Reed wears his influence on his sleeve: the record sleeve,
where he cites La Monte Young as an important predecessor to the recording.
Metal Machine Music sold poorly (Billboard magazine review: “Recommend
cuts: None”) and many fans tried to return it as defective,
but it’s impact on industrial music and even dissonant pop is
Sonic Youth used parts of the record as bed tracks for their Bad Moon
Rising LP. Formed in New York, 1981, by guitarists Lee Ranaldo and
Thurston Moore (both who had played with Glenn Branca) and bassist
Kim Gordon, the band maintain their relevance through constant experimentation
and the mentoring of younger players (including Nirvana, Pavement,
Beck and many other acts that would eventually outsell them). They
are perhaps the only band to have covered songs by the Beatles, The
Velvet Underground, and Fluxus. On the single from Psychic Hearts,
Moore’s first solo effort, Ono Soul, he demands “Bow down
to the queen of noise”.
Beyond the close ties to Fluxus artists, both the Beatles and the
Velvet Underground also had members in the band – John Lennon
and John Cale were both participating in Fluxus projects. Lennon took
part in Flux-festivals and created Fluxus multiples. Cale screened
a short film called Police Car (blinking overexposed lights from a
police vehicle) and also contributed scores to Fluxus publications.
One such score - “Listen to the wind and follow it” -
was dedicated to Canadian Fluxus artist Robin Page.
After leaving the Velvets Cale would continue his influence by working
inside and outside of the artworld. He collaborated with Terry Riley
(who’s music inspired the opening section of The Who’s
Baba O’Riley) and produced seminal debut records for The Modern
Lovers, Patti Smith, and the Stooges. His production credits also
include Siouxie and the Banshees, The Happy Mondays, Jesus Lizard
The impact of Fluxus on popular music was not limited to the Beatles
and VU. In 1966, Gustav Metzger, the “Auto-Destructive”
Austrian artist hosted the Destruction in Art Symposium that brought
together Fluxus artists with members of the Viennese Actionists. The
three-day event involved tortured books, melted canvases, punctured
pianos, slaughtered sheep, Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, Otto Muhl,
Hermann Nitsch (whose involvement cost the organizers a £100
fine) and many others. In the audience was one of Metzger’s
students, Pete Townshend, who later went on to form The Who. Townsend
recalls that Metzger “had a profound effect on me. I was doing
my first gig with The Who. I took it as an excuse to smash my new
Rickenbacker… I really believed it was my responsibility to
start a rock band that would only last three months, an Auto-destructive
rock group. The Who would have been the first punk band, except that
we had a hit."
Some rock critics claim this as high-brow revisionist rock history.
Stories differ as to the intention of the first Who guitar destruction
performance, at the Marquee in London. Some reports claim that Townshend
was frustrated at the poor sound of the venue and took it out on the
amplifiers, destroying his guitar in the process, which he used to
smash the amps. Apparently drummer Keith Moon thought it looked like
good fun and began thrashing his own kit. Others claim that Townshend
was swinging his guitar in the air and it hit a lightbulb hanging
from the low ceilings of the venue, but it met with such applause
that he continued to destroy the instrument. Either way, the act became
a mainstay of Who performances for years.
An iconic example of Fluxus instrument destruction began, too, with
mostly practical concerns. For the finale of the first Fluxus festival,
held in Wiesbaden, 1962, the artists famously destroyed the piano
that had been used in the previous performances. Shocking and controversial
at the time, the decision was apparently made after the discovery
that it would cost $200 to have the piano moved, which was more than
it was worth.
Nam June Paik’s 1962 One For Violin involved the artist lifting
the instrument over his head slowly and then smashing it down onto
the table in front of him, the shattered pieces sent flying. This
work became further notorious when Charlotte Moorman performed it
in 1967. During the lead up to the destruction an audience member
began berating her that it was wasteful and shameful to destroy an
instrument, that it would be better served given to some underprivileged
music student. He charged the stage to place his head in the path
of the swing, as protest, only to have his forehead gashed open by
the striking fiddle. This type of violent encounter between performer
and audience would be played out twenty years later in the punk scene.
In 1967, Moorman and Paik were briefly imprisoned for “indecent
exposure” after a performance of his opera Sextronique, where
Moorman had played the cello with her breasts exposed. Paik had often
remarked that “sex is very underdeveloped in music, as opposed
to literature and optical art.” Perhaps his most famous attempt
to correct this problem the Fluxus Penis Symphony, a work in which
ten young stick their penises thru a large sheet of notation. His
1962 composition Serenada for Alison Knowles includes the instruction
“Take off a pair of blood-stained panties, and stuff them in
the mouth of the worst music critic.” This anticipates rock
music’s ambivalence towards acceptance from the establishment
and predates not only the theatrical gore of Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne
and Kiss, but also the eventual reclaiming if it from “riot
girl” bands like L7 (whose guitarist Donita Sparks once reportedly
removed a tampon and flung it into the audience).
In the spring of 1996, Oklahoma rock outfit The Flaming Lips gathered
some thirty locals with cars that contained tape players at a local
Oklahoma City mall's parking garage, gave them each a unique cassette,
and instructed that they all begin at the precisely the same moment.
The participants were then invited to wander outside their car and
hear the result. A follow-up performance in Austin, Texas, involved
almost 2000 people. This led to walkmans being handed out during Flaming
Lips concerts and eventually the four CD set Zaireeka that asks to
be played simultaneously, synchronized on four separate stereos.
Almost twenty-five years prior, Laurie Anderson held one her earliest
performance works, titled Automotive, in Rochester, Vermont. It involved
a gazebo with cars parked around it and flash cards produced by the
artist that signalled when the car owner should lean on his horn.
Anderson tells the story that initially it was difficult to find anyone
in Rochester who wanted to be in an automotive orchestra. So she set
up a little booth at a supermarket and asked “Is your Dodge
a C sharp?” Once it became competitive it was easier to get
Ten years prior to Anderson’s piece is Fluxus artist George
Brecht’s Motor Vehicle Sundown Event wherein performers parked
their cars in an open field and switched on engines, horns, lights,
or opened doors, according to instructions on printed cards. I don’t
mean to suggest that the Flaming Lips twice removed variation on Brecht’s
Motor Vehicle Event is any more than happenstance, but rather that
happenstance is integral to any history. And that sometimes history
goes backwards. Greil Marcus, in his epic Lipstick Traces, tells a
counter-history of punk rock and provides antecedents in the Situationist,
Lettrist and Dada movements. He is not so much suggesting that Johnny
Rotten had some Guy Debord in him, but rather that Guy Debord had
some Johnny Rotten.
The book, like every history I’ve ever read of popular music,
completely omits Fluxus. Not even a footnote. I can’t help but
think of the protagonist in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian,
born in a manger next door to Christ and in attendance at the major
events in history, but completely left out of its retelling.
Rock music doesn’t want or need to know its ancestry - indeed
reverence is its very antithesis. It’s like Walter Benjamin’s
angel of history - it has to turn it’s back on the pile of debris
behind it, and let the storm of progress propel it forward. Fluxus,
too, with its emphasis on ephemerality, doesn’t require the
craned neck of corrective history, but it’s sometimes worth
noting the flowers in the dustbin.
Dave Dyment, 2005
1. The Velvet’s debut record, and the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper
were released within months of each other, in 1967. Both albums were
designed by Pop Artists (Peter Blake and Andy Warhol) and are considered
the most influential records of all time.
2. Within You Without You from Sgt Pepper Knew my Father, Lee Ranaldo’s
take on Stephanie Says from the Velvet Underground tribute and several
pieces from Goodbye 20th Century, respectively.
3. The most sought after producer in rock music is another Cale collaborator
- Brian Eno. Certainly influenced by Fluxus - most online biographies
list him as having been involved, though exactly how is unclear -
his conceptual approaches to sound helped shape top selling records
he recorded for David Bowie, Talking Heads, Devo, James and, most
famously, U2. Eno protegees Michael Brook and Daniel Lanois (both
Ontario expats) brought many of these recording techniques and approaches
to records for artists as diverse as Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, Emmylou
Harris, Willie Nelson, Lucious Jackson and the Pogues.
4. Townshend estimates the number of guitars he has destroyed to be
over 200. The act (and Jimi Hendrix’ subsequent performance
at the Montery Pop Festival, where he set his instrument ablaze) has
gone on to symbolize the discontentment, rage and anti-authority behaviour
that rock music is said to express. Hendrix’ destroyed guitar
was eventually auctioned off for thousands of dollars and now sits
under glass in a Seattle Museum.
5. “Yeah the guy fuckin' tried to climb up on stage and fucking
attack me, so I smashed his fucking brains in with my bass guitar”
- Sid Vicious
I had a postcard with an image of Madonna on my mantle for two years
and friends would often remark that they found this surprising. “I
wouldn’t have pegged you as a Madonna fan,” they’d
say, as though it was somehow incongruous with the rest of my musical
tastes.1 In fact I do like Madonna (I think “Like A Prayer”
is the best song equating religious worship with blowjobs since Leonard
Cohen, and all the more remarkable because it debuted as a Pepsi ad)
but the card was for a 1999 Candice Breitz work. One that I had read
and heard a lot about, but had never seen. From the Babel series,
it’s an incredible video installation that loops a single second
of Madonna’s Papa Don’t Preach music-video and a few frames
from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody in such a way that Madonna is
perpetually crying out “papa, papa, papa” and Freddie
Mercury, on a monitor nearby, is stuttering “mama, mama, mama,
mama” (from the famous Mama Mia refrain). Two gender-fuck performers
crying out for their parents in an almost universal baby talk.
Bohemian Rhapsody was Queen’s mega-hit from 1975 and the promotional
video is often hailed as one of the first music videos, paving the
way for the MTV generation. Mercury’s overt (homo)sexuality
and the pomp and grandeur of the track made for an unlikely hit with
the classic rock crowd in the mid-seventies. Papa Don’t Preach
is the music video that taught a generation how to use the advance
frame feature on their VCR remotes, after it was reported that Madonna’s
breast bursts out of her bustier for a single frame, perhaps the original
wardrobe-malfunction. In a brilliant bit of condensed editing, Breitz
empties the track of all narrative (the song seems out of character
for Madonna now, clearly the work of a songwriter for hire. It’s
TV-movie-of-the-week quality is beneath the singer, and it’s
content could even be read as a pro-life tract). It’s as though
Breitz has found the DNA of the source, a single cell that contains
all the information of the original, and then some.
Her work for the Venice Biennale Mother, Father could be viewed as
a continuation of the Madonna/Mercury videos from Babel, but is considerably
more ambitious. The diptych consists of six projected screens of Hollywood
actresses portraying mothers (Faye Dunaway, Diane Keaton, Shirley
MacLaine, Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon and Meryl Streep) and an adjacent
room with six actors tackling fatherhood (Dustin Hoffman, Tony Danza,
Harvey Keitel, Steve Martin, Donald Sutherland and Jon Voigt). All
background information is literally blacked out; using complex editing
techniques Breitz has made it look as though the actors were performing
on a dark stage, lit from above. The archetypes espouse parental wisdom,
frustration and joy. They also grunt and groan, stutter and twitch.
The result is nothing short of operatic.
A newer work revisits Madonna again, this time a portrait of the artist,
titled Queen, made up of 30 screen-test shots of die-hard fans performing
the songs from Madonna’s greatest hits collection, playing simultaneously.
The cacophonous roar of the grid occasionally lapses into moments
of incidental harmony.
For Mercer Union, her first solo exhibition in Canada, Breitz presents
Soliloquy (Clint). In many ways it answers Matthew Suib’s western
remake Cocked, which Mercer exhibited last spring.2 Both feature the
iconic image of a deconstructed Clint Eastwood. Soliloquy features
Eastwood only; omitting all scenes from Dirty Harry in which he does
not appear, or that feature other performers. There are no disruptions
to the continuity of the source material; Breitz limits her edits
to simple linear cuts. The resulting extrapolation is a masterful
exposé of the manipulations of cinema and the mass media. Again,
the works are distilled to their essence to allow the subtext to emerge.
The series also includes (Jack) with Jack Nicholson from Witches of
Eastwick and (Sharon), using Sharon Stone from Basic Instinct (another
film that has undoubtedly been subjected to many extended freeze-frames
over the years).
The works owe no small debt to a series of single-channel videos Dara
Birnbaum produced at NSCAD in the late seventies including Technology/transformation:
Wonder Woman and Kiss the Girls make them Cry.3 These pioneering works
used pop culture TV images to expose the stereotypes and limited representation
of women in the mass media. Breitz’s work shares this concern,
but also takes on a myriad of others.
This richness is owed not only to a strong sense of conceptual rigour,
but also, one suspects, a true engagement with the source material.
Unlike a lazy attempt at “culture jamming” this feels
well masticated, before being spat out. The edits are straight-forward
and non-manipulative, but truly incisive.
Novels impress us with the scope of their achievement, but not in
the same way a perfect poem can. To convey complex ideas concisely,
free of all extraneous information, is a somehow more breathtaking
Dave Dyment, 2005
1. The phrase was condescending in both its display of their snobbery,
and in it’s mocking of my own.
2. For more information, visit www.mercerunion.org/show.asp?show_id=267
3. The Soliloquy series could also be thought of as a realization
of Yoko Ono’s conceptual Film Script 5 (1964), in which she
asks the audience "not to look at Rock Hudson, but only Doris
Kelly Mark: Glowhouse
I love to watch things on TV. When I first bought a video camera I pointed it out the window and sat on the sofa watching the passersby on my set for hours on end, in a way I would never just sit and look out the window. It’s this addictive quality that draws the ire of its detractors, even as they indulge in their own opiates of choice.
It’s television the appliance that appeals to me, not the programming, 90% of which is crap (a ratio on par with the visual arts, theatre, literature, music, film and most other things). I like that it’s a nightlight for the insomniac, company for pets, a warm glow left on low in the backroom when one is cleaning or working. A common comfort, like a porch light left on.
When art turns its attention to television it tends to be as a critique of the content, or at best an examination of the possibilities, but seldom a celebration of the qualities intrinsic to the ubiquitous box. Sound artists recognize the strong cultural resonance that a record player needle or speaker holds for its audience. Rarely are the properties inherent to television(s) mined for the same visceral memory effect.
Artists’ writings sometimes come closest. Laurie Anderson likens television to Heaven as a perfect little world that doesn't really need you. As a stand-alone, the metaphor holds up, but she nails it with the line that follows - "and everything there is made of light". Tom Sherman, in his 1980 text "How To Watch Television" proposes leaning in close, with your face pressed up against the glass. It's beautiful up close. It’s rare that we think of televised images as made of light. We’re somewhat aware of the illusion and the frames per second but the glow often goes unnoticed, perhaps because it is inconspicuously projected onto us.
Kelly Mark sees the light, harnesses and amplifies it in a brilliant outdoor installation titled “Glowhouse” - a vacant home flickering with the blue light of thirty-five televisions, conspiratorially set to the same channel. The cartoon plutonium-like glow pulsing through the house, like the heartbeat of the home. Like a jack-o-lantern.
The building appears gutted, cast with light in a manner reminiscent of Rachel Whiteread’s concrete cast of an East London house. Mark’s work betters Whiteread as a public sculpture by being less intrusive, less monumental. It’s a late-night intervention situated on a residential street near the downtown core, waiting to be stumbled upon by drunks and dog walkers, for a discreet but sublime evening encounter.
A companion work, “Horror, Suspense, Romance, Porn, Kung-Fu”, records the glow of genre cinema reflected onto a wall. In exhibition a different genre is represented weekly for the duration of the show. Just as different types of music have rhythms and timbres specific to their styles, cinema genres have their own particular rhythms and hues. Westerns are browner, film-noir blacker. Thrillers flicker faster. Glowhouse also highlights these rhythms – during an action film, or commercial break or music video, the fast edits make it appear as though fireworks are going off inside the house.
Mark is often called a “working-class conceptualist” and, for all its physical beauty, “Glowhouse” is not incongruous with this assessment. A common working-class pastime is to come home from a hard day’s work and unwind in front of the television by watching others perform their job. We watch shows about cops, teachers, doctors, coroners. Newscasters and talk show hosts sit perched behind desks.
The upper classes once distinguished themselves by the culture they consumed and now resent sharing one with the great unwashed, perhaps explaining the condescending epithets boob tube and idiot box. Television is often blamed for our short attention spans, laziness and the learning difficulties of our children. For violence and deviant behaviour - nothing short of the breakdown of society. Mark sidesteps the pissing match and democratizes the medium by reducing it to its core element. By accentuating the light, Mark reminds us that television has merely replaced fire as center of the home - the glow around which we tell our stories.
Dave Dyment, 2005